Zibby Owens: I am so excited to be here today with Mitch Albom who is the author of seven number-one New York Times best sellers including Tuesdays with Morrie, the best-selling memoir of all time. His books collectively have sold more than forty million copies worldwide and have been translated into 47 languages. His latest memoir is Finding Chika: A Little Girl, an Earthquake, and the Making of a Family. Mitch has written award-winning TV, films, plays, a musical, and has written a syndicated newspaper column for thirty years. He was voted America’s best sports columnist by the Associated Press Sports. He founded SAY Detroit in 2006 which oversees nine full-time charities in the Metro Detroit area. In 2010, he began operating the Have Faith Haiti Mission Orphanage. He currently lives with his wife Janine, who he calls Miss Janine in this book, in Michigan. Welcome to Mitch.

Thanks for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books,” Mitch. Welcome.

Mitch Albom: Thank you. Glad to be here.

Zibby: Finding Chika, please tell listeners what this book is about. What inspired you to write it?

Mitch: That’s a big question. I operate an orphanage in Haiti. I have since the earthquake of 2010. I’m there every month. We have fifty-two children. Three days before the earthquake happened, a little girl was born whose name was Chika Jeune. She, on the third day of her life, was inside a cinderblock, one-room house with her mother when the earth shook. The house collapsed around them. The roof fell off. Miraculously, she survived. That night, she slept out in the sugarcane fields in the dirt when she was three days old and slept there for the next six or seven weeks of her life. You could say that she was born into the soil of her homeland. She was pretty tough. Our lives came together when she was two years old and her mother died in that same cinderblock house giving birth to a baby brother. There was no doctor present. That’s not uncommon in Haiti. I’m sure whatever went wrong could have been fixed if she were in an American hospital and she’d be alive today. She wasn’t in an American hospital, so she died. Little Chika was taken away that day and was brought to us at our orphanage. That began our life together.

For the next couple of years, Chika was the youngest child that we had, and the bossiest and the brashest and the bravest and the loudest. She told all the other kids where they could go and what line to stand in and when they could eat and everything. She was a delight, a very brave, brash, bold delight. Then when she was five years old, I got a phone call that there was something the matter with her. Her face was drooping. We got her to the only neurologist that was available in Port Au Prince. We got her to the only MRI machine in the entire country. When the report came back, it said there was a mass on this child’s brain. Whatever it is, there’s no one in Haiti who can help her. We scrambled to get her a visa and paperwork. Next thing you know, she was coming to America at age five. We thought we would end up having her for a couple of months while our brilliant American surgeons would take out this mass, and then she’d be okay and she’d go back and live amongst the kids in Haiti.

She never went home. She ended up staying with us and becoming our daughter. For two years, we traveled around the world with her trying to find a cure. The book Finding Chika is the story of that journey to find a cure, but instead finding something else, which is a family and all the ways that we had our eyes opened as a couple who did not have children and were in their late fifties, suddenly had a little five-year-old precocious girl who didn’t look like them, didn’t talk like them, didn’t come from them, but was every bit our little girl. I hope it’s an inspiring, uplifting story even in the light of what turned out to be a sad event in the end.

Zibby: It is an inspiring story, heartbreaking but beautiful. One of the things I found really interesting was your relationship with Miss Janine, your wife Janine, and how you had gone through a period of time where you didn’t actively want to have kids. You kept putting it off and putting it off until when you did want kids, it became impossible to do it. I feel like there was a lot of beating yourself up in this book about wishing you could go back and doing it again. Do you think you would feel differently if you knew that it wasn’t your timing? I feel like you kept thinking, “If I’d just known earlier, things would be so different.”

Mitch: If all of us got to live our life through the prism of our later days, we’d all be a lot smarter. I want to be clear that it was me, not my wife, who delayed having children. It was me, not my wife, who was afraid of the commitments. She wanted kids. We didn’t get married until our very late thirties. Even after we got married, I delayed. I did that thing, “We should be married first for a couple years. Then we’ll have –” I don’t think we realized how late in life that is to try to have kids. Then by the time we did try, it was too late. It didn’t happen. We settled into this role of aunt and uncle because we have fifteen nieces and nephews. We became that aunt and uncle who took the kids for weekends and took the kids on some vacations and helped celebrate their birthdays and on Christmas Eve, would go over and bring all the presents. Then on Christmas morning, there was nobody in the house. That was us for all those years. My wife bravely and very admirably dealt with it and said, “That’s just not to be.” The fact is, I was more at a fault for that than she was for many years. Until we took over the orphanage and until Chika came to live with us, that was this big, empty spot in our lives. Then it was filled in a most remarkable way, not a usual way, but a remarkable way.

Zibby: Chika came to you in the beginning of this book. She’s one of the characters, really, not just in the past but as you’re writing it. A lot of the book is describing your act of writing this book, how it’s difficult for you to write. It’s very personal. Yet Chika kept coming into the room, literally, while you were writing. Can you tell me more about that experience?

Mitch: First of all, when you write a book like this, you don’t want people to be scared of it, like, “I can’t read a book about a child who dies. It’s too sad.” They would be dismissing and missing a great story. I understand the feeling. Right from the very first page, you know that she died already. It’s not one of those books that as you go along, she’s getting sicker. It’s not like that at all. You know she died because I say that she died, but yet she’s back. Chika would always come downstairs with me in the morning. I get up early. She got up early. I wanted to let my wife sleep because the day was hard enough. Chika would come down with me. We’d sit in my office. I’d give her a magic marker or a pad or a doll or whatever. I would try to write my books. She would sit at my feet. I’d say, “Chika, you have to be quiet.” Of course, in two minutes she’d say, “Can I have another marker? Can I have a pad? What are you doing? What are you writing about?”

Her dialogue and her conversation was so much a part of who she was. She was so funny. She butchered the English language in such a way that was so endearing. I thought, I’ve got to make this a conversation. I wrote it that she’s back. She’s saying to me, “When are you going to start writing about me?” Of course, I had been delaying doing that because I was dealing with my grief and not sure how to do it. She coaxes me through it. The whole book is a conversation with her. If you really want to know what our relationship was, it was a verbal relationship. Yes, we played physically. I lifted her and carried her and all that. First and foremost, it was the way she communicated. I thought that would be the best way to tell it in the book.

Zibby: I love how on Instagram you’ve been showing all these videos of you with Chika and songs and lullabies and all the rest of it. It’s amazing.

Mitch: It’s pretty close to how it is in the book.

Zibby: It is. I was like, I feel like I already saw this. In the book, you also reference time that you spent with Morrie, from your famous book Tuesdays with Morrie, and how he had told you that his last months “proved to be the most vibrant and likened them to the brilliant colors of a dying leaf.” When you go through this with Chika’s illness, I was wondering, did you see that same sort of vibrancy in the waning days of her life? Do you think that it only comes with the wisdom of old age?

Mitch: It’s different with a child. There are several things that were different and several things that were the same with Tuesdays with Morrie. Ironically, it was twenty years to the week that I found out that Morrie had ALS, that I found out that Chika had DIPG, this terrible, stage-four brain tumor, twenty years to the week.

Zibby: You’re going to have to make that a vacation week from now on.

Mitch: Right, at least every twenty years.

Zibby: Okay, fine, every twenty years.

Mitch: With Morrie, I sat alongside a dying older man and learned a tremendous amount of lessons about my life and as it turned out, other people’s lives. With Chika, I didn’t so much sit alongside as play alongside and carry alongside and travel alongside. It was still time spent with what turned out to be a dying little girl, and also had my eyes opened and illuminated and learned so many things that I try to put in the book in seven lessons, one for each year that she lived on earth. The difference was with Morrie, I never felt like I was supposed to save him. With Chika, I did.

Zibby: I’m sorry. It’s heartbreaking.

Mitch: I’m sorry. That was the difference. When I didn’t save her, then I felt like I had failed. For a long time, I had to fight that. Whereas with Morrie, I felt it was inevitable. He was seventy-eight. He knew it was coming. He accepted it. Chika didn’t know what was coming. That was her blessing. We didn’t spend any of the two years that we had together talking about, “Chika, what have you learned about life now that you know you’re going to die?” She didn’t have any idea that she was going to die. We kept it that way. I’m glad that we did. I know there are some parents who deal with these situations who feel like transparency is the most important thing and explain to the kid why they’re going to the hospital and explain what cancer is and explain what a tumor is.

I fully respect that position, but I didn’t do it. I wouldn’t do it. I wanted Chika to remain the beautiful child that she was. We turned it into childhood trips and childhood adventures and childhood whatever. The few times in her life that she asked, “Why are we going to the doctor?” I would say, “He’s going to help you walk better. He’s going to help you feel better. Then we’ll go back to Haiti.” It was always, “When can I go back to Haiti?” Until she lost her ability to speak and awareness, which is one of the byproducts of this disease, she was a child. She was hopeful. She was optimistic. That’s the gift that we can give her. There were many similarities between Morrie, but there was that one big difference.

Zibby: This goes without saying. It’s impossible for parents to save their kids in these situations. That’s one of the things about giving birth or adopting or falling in love with a child, as soon as you create the life or bring the life into your own, you know it has a natural end. It’s just a matter of when. Are you there to see it or not?

Mitch: I didn’t want to be there to see it. I wanted to go first. That’s still the hardest part of it, anniversaries of days or her birthday where you say, Chika would’ve been ten years old next year. In January, she’d be ten, double digits. It’s always would’ve been, would’ve been. Would’ve been going to school. Would’ve been getting married. Would’ve been going to college. Those are hard. That’s not the upthrust of the book. That’s my burden to bear. You asked me, so I answered. I’m happy to answer anything you ask me. The book really celebrates — in fact, towards the end I say this very clearly. There are a lot of ways that families can come together, the traditional way, the adoptive way, the blended families, in your fifties and a kid who comes out from Haiti and joins you from an orphanage. No matter how families come together and no matter how they ultimately come apart — this is true — you can’t lose a child. We did not lose a child. We were given a child. It’s on that optimistic note that I wrote the book. I don’t want anybody to think that I want sympathy or for anybody to feel sorry for us. We were given a child. It was the best gift ever. Whether your child lives to outlive you or only lives a couple of years — there are kids with DIPG who get it at four and are dead at four and a half. She got at five and lived until seven. That’s a miracle in the DIPG community. It was a gift. It still is.

Zibby: I’m so sorry.

Mitch: No, don’t be sorry.

Zibby: I don’t feel sorry for you. I just feel your pain.

Mitch: I just miss her. That’s all, when I talk about her. I like talking about her.

Zibby: Do you feel that writing about her helped? Did that help you process it? I know you came down with all sorts of physiological symptoms as you were trying to write about it.

Mitch: That was weird. I thought it would be very cathartic. I found it to be cathartic when I began it, and all these conversations. I could write what she would say or how she would sing. “Doe, a deer, a email deer.” I’d say, “No, Chika, it’s female.” “What?” “Female not email.” “No, it’s my mouth. I can say what I want.” That’s her logic. I put those in. What she told me once — I can still see her because I have the video. She started singing “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.” She had a pencil and the desk. Then she banged her pencil. She said, “Now you sing it.” I said, “Do you want me to sing it?” “You sing it.” I said, “How does it go?” She looked at me with the most exasperated face like, “You don’t watch Mary Poppins before? Are you crazy?” She couldn’t imagine a world in which everybody didn’t know all the words to Mary Poppins.

Recreating those conversations, that was joyous in its own way. You’re right, I did get quite sick. I thought, quite frankly, that I was having a stroke or multiple. I would get dizzy. My right side would go numb and couldn’t feel my feet and my cheek. At one point, they raced me to the hospital and took all these tests. Ultimately, it was determined that it was grief combined with a lot of dehydration and too much coffee and over-caffeine-ization. They said, “You need to cut this out for a while. It’s not going to go away right away. It’s going to stay with you for probably another three to six months, even if you stop coffee and even if you hydrate and even if you sleep.”

Zibby: How much coffee are we talking?

Mitch: I had like ten cups a day.

Zibby: Ten cups? I don’t feel bad about that.

Mitch: Now I don’t have any, none. I’m totally off caffeine, totally off all of it. I don’t even have decaf coffee or decaf tea, just nothing. She helped me in that way. It did stick around for a while until I finished the book. My wife was so much smarter than I was. I had EEGs, EKGs, MRIs of my brain. I had a carotid artery test, you name it, everything. She said, “They’re not going to find anything. You’re going to be okay.” I said, “Then what is this?” She said, “It’s grief.” I said, “No, no, no. I’ve put all that behind me already. It’s been a year, year and a half.” She said, “Mitch, you loved her.” That was about it. She was right, of course. She’s right about most things. In a certain way, I don’t mind paying a physical price for having to write this story because that’s the price of loving a child. I’m okay with that now.

Zibby: How does Miss Janine feel about the book? Do you feel like it helped her? Did she help you read along with it? Was it too painful? I feel like it would be such a — I don’t know. Tell me.

Mitch: All my books, my wife makes me read to her. She doesn’t sit and read them. She makes me read them out loud. She seems to enjoy that more. In this particular case, it was tough. It was a lot of tears. There were a few things she asked me to take out, which I did. It was critical for me that she was on board with every word of this because this is as much her story as it is mine. It’s a story about the two of us and our marriage. A whole chapter, one of the seven lessons that Chika left behind, all has to do with her and how you understand your partner, your spouse, so differently once a child comes in. I was so stupid when I was a younger man. I worried about if we have a child, it’s going to take away from me. She’ll probably spend all her time with the kid. It’s going to be two against one, all those silly things you worry about.

Once Chika came into our life, not only was it not that, but I so appreciated — I saw this whole other side of my wife that I never got a chance to see, this nurturing, maternal side, singing lullabies to Chika, and walking her to the bathroom and shutting the door on me and saying, “Privacy please.” That’s what Chika would say, “Privacy please.” Girls do that. Men have to wait. Chika would take her hair and put it over her own head. My wife has long, dark hair. She’d say, “Mr. Mitch, Miss Janine and I have the same hair.” I knew she was trying to look like her and be like her. It was so lovely and so wonderful to see my wife blossom like that. I felt bad. Why didn’t we do this sooner? Why I was so stupid and selfish when we were younger? I’m so glad that, even though it was for a brief period of time, I got to see that and she got to have that. She has it now with all her fifty-two kids. It’s a lot.

All of which is to she’s okay with it. She cries a lot. She doesn’t come on these book tour things. It’s too hard for her. She doesn’t come listen to me talk or whatever. It’s too hard for her. Like I do, she wants the world to know who Chika was and wants her to live on. Of course, all the profits from this book go to the orphanage. I don’t take anything. We know that if people buy this book and it finds an audience here or around the world, that’s only going to help the kids. That’ll be Chika’s legacy to her brothers and sisters. They were all her brothers and sisters. We don’t distinguish between blood relatives at the orphanage there. Once you’re in, these are your brothers and sisters for life. I know she’d like to help them.

Zibby: How did you get involved? I know you have so many charities that you support. You don’t just support charities. You are down there in Haiti, hands-on, actually doing such good work and helping so many people, all these kids and all of this. Is giving back something that has always been important to you?

Mitch: No. I have to be honest with you. It wasn’t. I was very selfish through my twenties and into my thirties. It was more when I sat with Morrie and he admonished me a little bit to that degree. He said, “What do you do for your community?” I said, “What do you mean?” He said, “Charities. What do you do for your community?” I said, “I write checks.” He said, “Anybody can write a check. You’ve been given a voice and a megaphone. You need to use it to do more than just aggrandize yourself.” I started my first charity in 1995, the year that I visited Morrie. I have nine charities that I operate. I don’t support them, I operate them. I’m not correcting you. There are many that I support, but those nine, I operate in Detroit. They’re in an umbrella called SAY Detroit. Haiti was an accident. I went after the earthquake to help out a local pastor who said that his orphanage had been destroyed. He couldn’t get a phone call through. I helped arrange a small little plane and decided to go on this little plane to go see what was going on in Haiti just a couple works after the earthquake which was all over the news. Like seeing Morrie on television and being somehow drawn to go see him, that was somehow meant to be in my life.

When I landed in Haiti, the things that I saw, people all covered with white dust and bleeding in the street and rubble and every building collapsed and crushed, and people weeping and crying and begging and drinking water out of dirty puddles because there was no other way to get water, and then this orphanage, which hadn’t been destroyed but was overrun, children sleeping in the dirt and begging for a cup of rice, it never leaves you. You realize this is an hour away from Miami on an airplane. I can be here quickly. I began to get involved. I brought down a bunch of guys from Detroit. We made nine separate trips. They were roofers and plumbers and contractors. Detroit, that’s what we do. They brought all this stuff. We built the first showers and toilets, first kitchen, first dining room, first school on this place. We really built it up. While we were doing that, the pastor admitted to me that he didn’t have any money to operate it. We were building all this stuff, but he wasn’t going to be able to feed the kids or hire anybody. In one of those moments that you look back on your life and say, “Why did I do that?” I said to him, “I could probably operate it. I operate charities in Detroit. It’s probably pretty similar,” which it isn’t. He basically said, “Praise, Jesus. Halleluiah.”

He handed it over. I’ve been operating it ever since. He’s passed away since. It goes on ten years next year. I’m there every month. I’ll be there the rest of my life. This is never going to stop. Those fifty-two kids are my charge. I’ll raise them and make sure that they’re all college educated. My oldest two are already in college in the States. One is pre-med. He’s 4.0. I sound like a proud papa now, but I am proud. He’ll go back. All of them know when they’re finished, they’ll go back to Haiti. First, they go to the orphanage. They spend two years there doing whatever it is that they trained to do for us. If he becomes a doctor, he’ll be our doctor. We have one who went through culinary school. Now he’s our cook. They know they have to give back. Then after that, they’ll go into the country and make their own country better, maybe one day put us out of business. That would be nice. Until then, they know what they have to do.

Zibby: I have to ask you a little about your writing. You’re one of the most successful writers of all time, the number-one memoir of all time. What is your secret? What do you think it is about your writing that people respond to and connect with?

Mitch: I don’t know that it’s a secret. I don’t know that the success of those books is necessarily tied to my writing. I think the reason that people respond or have responded to my books is that I tried, from Tuesdays with Morrie on — I think I did it with Tuesdays with Morrie maybe subconsciously. I’m sure it was subconsciously because I’d never written a book like that before. I kept saying to myself, is this about me or is this of some use to somebody else? Any time the answer was, “No, it’s more about you,” I took it out. Any time I thought that there was something that was of use to somebody else, I left it in. What happened with Tuesdays with Morrie was — that was a tiny book. It wasn’t supposed to be anything. I just wrote it to pay his medical bills. I was in New York here going from publisher to publisher to publisher. Every one of them said no. “Boring. You’re a sportswriter. Nobody’s interested in that. It’s too depressing.” I would’ve given up if it wasn’t for the fact I was trying to pay his medical bills. I had so much negativity. It didn’t seem like a good idea to anybody. One publisher took it, gave us the money, which I gave to Morrie three weeks before he died. That was all it was supposed to be, just a way to pay his bills. I wrote the book. It came out. They printed 20,000 copies. We thought, that’s that. I’ll have most of them in the trunk of my car for the rest of my life. I’ll be driving around giving them out to people.

Then it found an audience. People handed it to one another and handed it one another. I think the reason they handed it to one another was what I just told you. There’s something in it for them. They would come up to me and say, “Let me show you a picture of my Morrie.” They would come up to me and say, “I’m just like you. I was working way too hard and all that. You were honest about how you were a bit of a jerk and too self-absorbed. I kind of feel that way too.” They found themselves in that book, either through me or through Morrie or both. I learned something from that. That’s a good way to tell a story that people are going to hang onto for a while, if it makes them feel something about themselves. If you want to tell a story that just makes you feel something about yourself, you can publish it. People may get it initially. Nobody’s necessarily going to say to someone else, “I got you this book as a present. I think it’ll help you. You’ll really like it. There’s a message in this.” I tried in all my successive books to do that.

The Five People You Meet in Heaven was based on a story that happened to my uncle about when he died, one of those near-death experiences, and rose above the bed and saw his dead relatives waiting for him at the edge of the bed, and came back to life and later told me about it. I thought, wow, that’s interesting. Maybe people are waiting for you when you go to heaven. What if they’re not all your relatives? What if they’re somebody you just met for five minutes? All of the lessons in that book were things that other people can relate to, not me. It wasn’t about me and my uncle. It was about when you feel you’re a nobody, there’s no such thing as a nobody. Everybody matters. That became the point of that book. All the successive books that I wrote, I always tried to think, what’s in this for the reader? Is it just something interesting to me? Maybe that’s why they gravitate to them. To be honest, I’m probably the last person you should ask that question to because I don’t actually buy my own books. I write them. Why did you like them, if you read them? What was the appeal of them to you?

Zibby: It’s so open and honest and relatable with a sense of humor. It speaks to the very essence — I’m a mother. The idea of losing, you always wonder, what’s it like? You take us through what it’s like as a guide without preaching in any way. You inspire and connect. That’s beautiful.

Mitch: Thank you. That’s very high praise. I appreciate that.

Zibby: It’s true. I had to ask you. How could I not ask?

Mitch: Writer’s podcast, you want a book podcast, you should ask.

Zibby: Thank you so much for taking the time.

Mitch: My pleasure.

Zibby: I wish you all the best. I’m sure you’re going to be mobbed by people. If people were showing you pictures of Morrie, you’re going to have a lot of —

Mitch: — I’d be happy to. That would mean that her story’s being read. If it inspires other people to hold their children tight and realize the preciousness of them, then I will have done something worthwhile. Chika already did. It’s my turn. I hope that our time together inspires people.

Zibby: You’ve absolutely done something worthwhile in so many ways.

Mitch: Thank you.

Zibby: Thank you, Mitch.

Mitch: My pleasure.